“Mean Girls” Team Running Amok?  Ask Madeleine

Dear Madeleine,

I manage a small group of what we call WMS professionals—Website Marketing Specialists. They all work remotely, and the group has developed into an extremely effective team.

I am very proud of our work; together we have found a way to really add value to sales and to the company. Taken individually, each woman (the team is all female, totally randomly) is delightful, professional, and easy to work with.

My problem is that, together, they fan the flames of their worst instincts, and—there is no other way to say it—they are a group of “mean girls.”  I have gotten several complaints; from other marketing teams, from salespeople, even from our service representatives, who are responsible for serving the contracts when we land them.

On our weekly team calls, the WMS women talk smack about other people in the company. They have nothing nice to say about anyone. As a group, they send out rude emails when colleagues don’t do things the way they think things should be done. Several have been forwarded to me with “WTH” and multiple question marks.

On a recent call with our head of sales—who is my boss—they were goofing around in the chat and paying no attention at all to the presentation. I was amazed—this was their boss’s boss. He mentioned that he noticed it and was put off.  It was just straight up bad behavior that none of these women would tolerate from their children, let alone colleagues.

I don’t want to de-motivate anyone by criticizing, but the reputation of the team is starting to suffer and undermine our excellent work. I need to do something; I just don’t know what. Where would you start?

Mean Girls Running Amok

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Dear Mean Girls Running Amok,

Although the Mean Girl reference made me laugh, I would argue that you have a slightly different problem. A little research on the Mean Girl phenomenon revealed that the term defines the behavior as “relational aggression” or using friendship as weapon. So, if a couple of bullies on the team were terrorizing one of its members, that would technically be a Mean Girl situation. The good news here is that you have a powerful intact team versus a potentially trickier situation, where some of the women on the team are ganging up on other team members. The bad news, of course, is that your team has closed ranks against other teams. I would describe your phenomenon as one where a team has formed such a strong, even tribal bond and feels so great about itself that it sets itself apart, above and beyond other teams and others in the organization. This is the dark side of strong team bonding. You may think I am splitting hairs here, but I believe the distinction is important. Plus, most adult women would object to being called girls, regardless of the context.

You are right not to criticize—the last thing you want is for your team to gang up on you, which is a very real risk.  But you must have the hard conversation—with the whole team. If there is clear ringleader, you might be tempted to start with her. But that could backfire by undermining the cohesion of the group—which you want to continue to maximize. So that means having the conversation with the whole group. For that you will want a model for how to have a challenging conversation, and my favorite one comes from Conversational Capacity by Craig Webber.

Blanchard’s Conversational Capacity program defines conversational capacity as the ability of an individual or a team to engage in open, balanced, non-defensive dialogue about difficult subjects and in challenging circumstances. It is also the sweet spot where innovation happens.

Craig says that to get yourself into the right mindset, you need to find the sweet spot between minimizing behaviors and winning behaviors. Minimizing in your case might sound like: “Hey team, I think we have a pattern that might be hurting us,” while winning might sound like: “Team, you are all behaving badly, and you need to fix it or else.” You are going to want to find that sweet spot between the two that might sound something like: “Team, I have observed some behaviors—and have gotten feedback from others—that some things being done are tarnishing our reputation and undermining our great work. I want to share those with you and think through together what we might do differently.”

You will want to strike a balance between candor and curiosity. You can rely on candor to outline the problem as you see it and the potential negative consequences you all face. Then, you can apply your curiosity to understand the underlying reasons for the damaging behaviors and really hear all points of view on the topic. Craig says we can achieve this balance by:

  • Stating our clear position
  • Explaining the underlying thinking that informs our position
  • Testing our perspective
  • Inquiring into the perspective of others. (pg. 78)

Some sample inquiries might be:

  • How do you guys see this situation?
  • What is your take on this?
  • What is your reaction to what I have just laid out?
  • Does what you are hearing sound like the way you want to be perceived as a team?

There is a good chance that some members of your team will be appalled and embarrassed, and you will need to be okay with that. You will also need to be okay with the person who minimizes by getting defensive and claiming that people are too sensitive and should get over themselves.

Once you have gotten some input and allowed your team reflect a little, you will have to make an official request for a change in behavior. You may be able to lean on the company values, if they exist. In our company we have a value we call Kenship (I know, isn’t it adorable?), which is defined as: “We value Ken [Blanchard]’s spirit of compassion, humility, and abundance. Kenship describes a sense of connectedness, a commitment to serve others, and a desire to have fun.” We also have the value Trustworthiness, which is described as: “We do the right thing. We are fair and ethical and do what we say we’re going to do.” Values like these make it easy to call out behaviors that are not aligned and help to keep the conversation objective. If your company doesn’t have stated values, now might be the time to craft a team charter, working together to define team values that will serve to guide everyone’s conduct moving forward. You obviously have a lot going for you already, so this could be a great way to develop the team into something even better.

Trashing everyone outside of the team is a way for the team to build connection; it is a habit the group has formed together. It is also a form of unhealthy entertainment. The key will be to help them shape new, good habits to replace the old bad habits, while continuing to nurture their connection.

What you can’t do is nothing. It is up to you to work with your team to repair the damage that has been done and lead them to become a team whose success is celebrated across the whole organization. It sounds like your team members are all fundamentally good and decent people. Once they see their dysfunctional behaviors reflected back to them, they will probably be willing to change. Lead on!

Love, Madeleine

About Madeleine

Madeleine Homan Blanchard is a master certified coach, author, speaker, and cofounder of Blanchard Coaching Services. Madeleine’s Advice for the Well Intentioned Manager is a regular Saturday feature for a very select group: well intentioned managers. Leadership is hard—and the more you care, the harder it gets. Join us here each week for insight, resources, and conversation.

Got a question for Madeleine? Email Madeleine and look for your response soon. Please be advised that although she will do her best, Madeleine cannot respond to each letter personally. Letters will be edited for clarity and length.

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